Leatherback Hatchlings- Manhame Beach, Mozambique

After receiving one spontaneous text message from a very excited Alex, ” they’ve hatched, we have seen the tracks”. I knew we needed to make a plan for a road trip back to Manhame Beach. Accompanied by Hannah and Fiona from Eyes on the Horizon we set off on the two hour drive to the south to meet Alex and Tomas and excavate the Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) nest so we could see the success rate. The last twenty minutes of the drive is in deep sandy tracks weaving throughout the villlage of dovela and into the nature reserve, we pass the lagoa and the twisted mixed species tree canopy is impressive compared with the mono cultures of coconut palms and cashews the three of us are used to.

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We arrive to Dunes de Dovela in the late afternoon and meet up with Alex, Tomas and Cashew (the lab puppy) and all eagerly head down through the dune track to the beach. The nest is about 15-20 mintue walk further round the beach to the south, the ocean is glassy with one huge line of dumpers breaking on the edge of the shallow lagoon. Along the way to the nest we pass a group of five pescadors (fishermen), sitting high up the beach, with an entourage of four yappy and skinny beach puppies. The pescadors are sitting around chatting amongst themselves whilst scaling an assortment of small reef fish. They greet us cheerily, offer to sell the fish and Alex reminds some of them, that it’s not good practice to catch such small reef fish, she gestures to the juvenile grouper one of the guys is cleaning. These fishers have a positive relationship with the team from Dunes de Dovela, who are teaching the fishers to report turtle nesting, poaching and sustainable fishing concepts. Creating relationships like this for exchange of local information and disseminating marine conservation ideas is not only a key passion of myself and the Dunes de Dovela team, but also an underlying philosophy in Hannah’s work with Eyes on the Horizon.

When we reach the nest site, the nest cone is obvious but all the hatchling tracks have been covered over from heavy rainfall the night before. I get settled and then begin to sink my arm into the nest cone, to check the surface sands for any hatchlings that may not have emerged yet.  I can’t feel the distinctive notch of the eggtooth or beak of any hatchlings sleeping in the surface sands so we begin to excavate the nest. The sand is soft, loose compared to the surroundings and feels slightly warmer and more humid. After several cave -ins and collapses of our excavation attempt the fist eggshells are detected.

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One by one I begin to remove empty eggshells, egglets and the occasional unhatched egg. As it gets deeper into the nest, there are some unlucky hatchlings which had hatched but died shortly after. I remove these semi-degraded hatchling carcasses and underneath it exposes the head and flipper of an alive one! I pull my head up from inside the crater of a hole we have dug out and happily announce to the team that we have  straggler. It’s great to watch peoples reactions the first time they meet a baby turtle and this was Alex and Tomas’ first encounter of a leatherback hatchling at their home beach, Manhame. They have been voluntarily monitoring the beach for turtles for multiple nesting seasons, so it was about time they got the see the end result.

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Along come our pari-angos (amigos in local dialect Bitonga) the pescadors just before the sun starts to set. They are intrigued to see what the mzungu’s “white people” are doing digging up half the beach. They crowd around the excavation site, I still have my head in the hole untangling remains of shells and carcasses when a second alive hatchling emerges! The pescadors are excited, they comment that they don’t regularly see the baby turtles. One asks how come there are so many dead hatchlings and I explain to him (in scratchy Portuguese)  that the hatchlings and the eggs are very sensitive to temperatures of the beach sand and when the sand is very hot they cannot survive. The pescadors watch for a while, bantering amongst themselves in Chope the local dialect and then resume their walk along the beach.

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On completion of the exhumation of the nest, we count up and sort out the remains in to categories based on stages of development. The nest had a very high hatch success, 94% but its emergence success (hatched but never survived to evacuate from the nest) was a bit lower, at 77%, still a high and successful ratio for Leatherback turtles.

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The sun has now set and in the orange and purple haze of the light, we released the two remaining hatchlings, the stragglers of the nest. Although they were slightly smaller than expected and looked a little mis-shapen and dehydrated, once on the beach slope they quickly accelerated their crawling speeds. We all sat back and watched as they crossed the wide beach, as they made progress each split away in a tangent of its own, leaving Hannah, Fiona and myself with one and Alex and Tomas with the other, everyone cheering them to the ocean. Manhame Beach is remote, it feels like your are in the middle of nowhere, and we were essentially, its great for the hatchlings though, because there is no artificial lighting in any direction to disorient them away from their path to the ocean (in which the reflection of the stars and moon at horizon level on the water guide their direction).

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In the final meters of the crawl and in the rapidly fading light, but near full moon, 3 of the fishermen walking in the return direction joined us to cheer the turtles into the water. We all watched on as the first few waves swashed the small turtles about but they quickly found their swimming rhythm and disappeared into the twilight. With the almost full moon up and the milky way stars sparkling we began the walk across Manhame beach through the very humid and still night air back to Dunes de Dovela and the car for the journey home.

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Greatest thanks to Alex, Tomas (and Caju the dog), Hannah and Fiona for accompanying me on this spectacular mission.

All the beautiful photos from this blog were taken by Hannah Darrin. Please request permission prior to use of images.

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